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What Is a Good SAT Score? What Do I Need for College?

A pencil laying on a standardized testing answer form.

You probably know that your SAT score (or ACT score) is one of the most important parts of your college application. Even though some schools are becoming test-optional, the vast majority of American universities still require applicants to submit scores from either the SAT or the ACT. Furthermore, many universities use SAT scores in their deliberations about merit scholarships, so a good SAT score can even have financial aid rewards!

That said, it can be hard to know what constitutes a good SAT score, especially since what constitutes a good score varies between student, region, and school. On top of that, SAT scores have changed a lot over time, meaning what constituted a good SAT score when your parents applied to college almost certainly doesn’t apply to you.

So, how do you know if your SAT score is good enough for your dream school? It’s not an exact science, but understanding how your score is calculated, and how it compares to the average of admitted students at various schools, can give you some idea.

What is a Good SAT Score?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the best SAT score you can get is a 1600, or an 800 in both the math section and the critical reading section. So, the simplest answer to this question is: the closer your score is to 1600, and the further it is from 400 (the lowest possible score), the better your SAT score is. But, of course, there’s more to it than that!

The truth is that standardized test scores are only one piece of your overall college application, and college admissions offices are going to evaluate them in the context of your larger profile as a prospective student. Are you someone who may have struggled in a few classes, but you aced the SAT with a perfect or near-perfect score? Colleges will be happy to know you’ve got the smarts. Do you excel in school but can’t seem to crack the SAT? Admissions officers will know your preparation just isn’t reflected by standardized tests.

Similarly, if you’re someone who has undertaken extensive preparation in an academic field, done serious and impactful volunteer work, taken on important leadership roles at your school and in your community, and/or excelled in national or even international competitions, colleges will also weigh those factors alongside your SAT score. Conversely, a perfect score may not be enough to overcome other weaknesses in your overall profile.

So, before we begin, it’s important to understand how your score will look in the context of your overall application, from your academics to your extracurricular activities. You can find out more about that process here.

What is an Average SAT Score?

In 2019, the average score on the SAT in the United States was approximately 1060, with a 50th percentile of about 530 in each of math and critical reading. The average ACT score was a 20.7 out of a possible total of 36.

However, that’s a national average, one that doesn’t take into account test takers’ grade or age, where they live, their degree of test preparation, the quality of their high school, their family income, their race or gender, or any other factors that have been proven to affect a student’s SAT score. Comparing your score to the national average tells you basically nothing. Rather, you need to understand how you compare to other students like you.

Rather than ask whether you’re above or below average nationally, ask whether you’re in the correct range for the colleges to which you plan to apply.

How Is the SAT Scored?

The SAT is administered by the College Board, which decides how the SAT will be scored for each individual test date. The scoring scale changes based on how difficult the questions are, meaning that for any given test date, you might get a different score for the same number of right answers as someone who took it a different day. Fortunately, these scales don’t change dramatically, as the average remains relatively constant.

The new SAT is structured into two sections, Mathematics and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. For each, you will receive a section score between 200 and 800, which will give you a total score between 400 and 1600. That number is your total SAT score.

In addition, both the SAT and the ACT have an optional essay section at the end of the test. The SAT Essay and ACT Writing are both scored by two graders on slightly different scoring scales. Unlike tests administered before March 2016, neither the SAT Essay nor the ACT Writing section are included in the total or composite scores. In fact, many colleges don’t consider it at all!

Can I Take the Test Multiple Times?

Yes! In fact, repeat testing is so common that the vast majority of colleges, even very selective schools, have methods of SAT scoring for students who take the test multiple times. There are two primary approaches in admissions offices: superscoring and score choice. Many schools offer both, some only one or the other, and a few use neither.

Superscoring

Superscoring is probably the tactic more familiar to you. When colleges superscore, they only consider the highest available section scores and add those together. So, if you got a better math score the first time but a higher score on the critical reading the second time, colleges that superscore will add together those higher scores to get your superscored total.

Note that because the ACT composite score is calculated through a more complex average than the simple total of SAT scoring, some colleges that superscore the SAT do not superscore the ACT. Nevertheless, the ACT recently introduced retesting for individual sections, so it’s entirely possible that this practice will change in the coming years.

Score Choice

Score Choice, on the other hand, gives students the option of which scores they would like to submit along with their applications. There are two scenarios: schools that offer score choice and don’t superscore and schools that offer score choice and do superscore.

Schools that do not superscore but do offer score choice generally only want to see your highest single test date. For schools that offer both superscoring and score choice, students should submit their scores from the test dates on which they achieved their highest section scores. That may be only one date, or it may be two.

Lastly, some schools offer superscoring but not score choice. While these schools will consider your superscore as your highest score, they nevertheless want to see all your scores.

See the table below for a hypothetical comparison:

Test Date 1 Test Date 2 Test Date 3 Highest Total Score
Math Reading Math Reading Math Reading Superscore Score Choice
680 590 700 630 670 670 1370 1340

This student’s superscore is a 1370, combining his highest math score (700) with his highest reading score (670), even though those were two different dates. His highest score under a score choice model is 1340, his score from Test Date 3.

How to Find Your SAT Goal Score

Not everyone can get a perfect SAT score, and not everyone needs to do so! One of the best things you can do to start is to understand your score goals based on the expectations of the colleges to which you’re applying.

1. Create a Target SAT Score Sheet

First, take your list of colleges, then create a score sheet with the names of your target schools in the left-hand column, and an additional column on the right for 75th percentile SAT scores. You want to use these score percentiles, rather than the median, to ensure that your scores are genuinely strong and will actively help your application.

2. Fill in School Details

Next, fill in the 75th percentile scores for each of your schools. Schools report this information to U.S. News and World Report, so any source that uses U.S. News can be considered reputable. As you fill these numbers in, make sure also to note if the school offers superscoring or score choice. You may want to note that information next to the right-hand column.

3. Create Score Goals

Now, take a look at the column of scores. What’s the minimum SAT score you need to reach (the lowest number), and what is your ultimate goal (the highest)? Then, ask yourself how you’re going to reach it. You don’t want your section scores to vary too much, but if you have a slightly higher score in math than reading, or vice versa, that’s all right. What scores do you hope to gain in each to achieve that total number?

4. Do a Diagnostic Practice Test

Once you’ve done the above, it’s time to figure out how close or far you are from your goals! The best way to do that is by taking a full-length practice SAT exam. You can either do that at home, using a test prep book, or by finding a tutoring company nearby that offers diagnostic standardized tests. Taking the full test, including the essay, is the only way to know exactly where you stand. Even if you’ve taken the PSAT, a diagnostic test is still worth your time.

What if Your SAT Score is Too Low?

Most test takers who go through the above exercise find that they are not where they want to be yet. If that’s you, don’t worry – there’s a reason SAT prep is a booming business. There are lots of things you can do to improve your SAT score.

Analyze Your Diagnostic Score Reports

Taking a real or diagnostic SAT exam will help you understand where you need to improve. Take a close look at your right and wrong answers; if you took the real test, or a diagnostic at a testing center, they will send you full score reports with your results.

Are you messing up easy questions or mostly struggling with the hard ones? Did you miss questions at the end or finish in time? How do your section scores compare? And how much ground do you need to make up before you take (or retake) the exam?

Create a Timeline

Depending on when in the college application process you are, you may have a lot of time to prepare for the next test date or you may need to move more quickly. So, before you decide how you’re going to study, figure out your timeline.

Do you have enough time that a little each week will get you there? Or do you need to cram a lot of studying into a short period of time? Be sure to think not only about the number of weeks or months before the next date, but also your academic and extracurricular commitments.

Find the Right Resources for You

Once you know where you need to get and how much time you have to get there, you can decide what kind of SAT test prep is right for you. Some students find it sufficient to create a regular self-study schedule using official College Board or ACT test materials. Others hire tutors to work one-on-one, take a test prep course, or create a study group.

Whatever course you decide to embark upon, remember that successful SAT prep includes both targeted practice on the types of questions you’ve been struggling with and taking whole practice tests so you get to know the rhythm of the test.

Take or Retake the SAT Exam

Finally, once you’ve prepared as much as you can (or have time for), you can take or retake the SAT. It’s very common for test day nerves to produce slightly lower scores than in practice, but that’s OK – it’s something that affects most students. Just stay calm and focus!

What Is the SAT Score Range at Top 10 Schools?

The first thing to know is: admitted students at Top 10 and Ivy League schools generally have very, very, very good scores on standardized tests. A near-perfect score on the SAT or ACT isn’t completely necessary, but generally speaking, selective colleges want to see a great score along with a strong resume, excellent grades, and exceptional application essays.

Keep in mind that all these SAT percentile scores are averages based on past admitted students to these schools, not hard cutoffs or guarantees. It’s important to understand the strength of the rest of your application, as well as the general competitiveness of your high school’s region, in order to determine if you need to meet or even exceed these percentile rankings.

School 25th Percentile SAT Score 75th Percentile SAT Score U.S. News Ranking Acceptance Rate
Princeton University 1460 1580 1 6%
Harvard University 1460 1580 2 5%
Columbia University 1450 1560 3 5%
Yale University 1460 1560 3 6%
MIT 1500 1570 3 7%
Stanford University 1420 1570 6 4%
University of Chicago 1490 1570 6 6%
University of Pennsylvania 1440 1560 6 7%
Northwestern University 1430 1550 9 9%
Duke University 1450 1570 10 7%

 

Final Thoughts

As with so many parts of the college application process, a good SAT score is a good score for you and your goals. Some students apply to schools with higher score ranges, while others aim lower or even opt for solely test-optional schools.

Nevertheless, as long as standardized tests remain a crucial part of the process for most selective schools, it’ll remain important for all students to think about how to fit the SAT (or ACT) into their college admissions strategy.

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